The Irish Football Association (IFA) is set to deploy a UEFA anti-racism directive in order to gag supporters’ protests, at Friday’s international clash between Northern Ireland and Italy at Windsor Park.
Fans had planned to display banners, highlighting what they believe amounts to a systematic plunder of the Association’s underage players by the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), which governs the game in the Republic of Ireland. Earlier this year the IFA took the FAI to court, in an attempt to stop the Republic picking players from Northern Ireland.
The Court of Arbitration for Support (CAS) ruled in the FAI‘s favour, finding that FIFA regulations allow the Republic of Ireland to continue selecting players from Northern Ireland; including players who have already played for one of the IFA’s underage teams. It did however acknowledge that the existing situation represents ’an unfair one way street’ which disadvantages the IFA.
Northern Ireland supporters connected to the successful website ’Our Wee Country’ channelled their frustration into two banners protesting at the FAI‘s selection policy. One warned the association to ‘stop interfering with our kids’ and another accused the southern body of creating ’Football Apartheid in Ireland’.
The pro-IFA banners were displayed without controversy during Northern Ireland’s European Championship qualifier in Slovenia, which the team won, but the association has indicated that they will not be welcome at Windsor Park on Friday.
The IFA cites a drive by UEFA, the body charged with running football in Europe, to banish racist displays from football stadia. But the association’s spokesman acknowledges that the banners are “not an issue in terms of racism” and that UEFA has not expressed any concern over their content.
The supporter who commissioned the banners, travelled from Mumbai in India in order to attend matches in Montenegro and Slovenia. He emphasises that the banners are intended solely as commentary on the FAI’s ’predatory’ selection policy and do not refer to “any other institution in Ireland’.
He also believes that the IFA is curtailing fans’ freedom of speech in order to protect lucrative commercial interests. The Northern Ireland team will take part in an inaugural ‘Celtic Cup’ tournament, hosted by the FAI in Dublin next year.
It is an allegation which Geoff Wilson of the IFA denies.
“The fans have a right to free speech but we are just trying to do what’s right for football in Northern Ireland. We want the team and the fans to remain focussed on beating Italy.”